Sunday, December 16, 2012

Nissan Leaf - A Perfect Urban Ride
Published in the Sun December 15, 2012

Lisa Davis loves her Leaf

Fellow eco-nerds with similar buying habits, Lisa Davis and I met at HEB stocking up on Seventh Generation recycled paper towels.  Lisa had seen my column about driving my Nissan Leaf to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center (a trip former editor Ben Trollinger referred to as “Toad’s Wild Ride”) and introduced herself as a fellow Leaf driver.  I asked if she has had adventures with electric driving, but she denied any drama.  “It’s a regular car.  People need to know that.”  Her Leaf was a Christmas present last year, and the thrill has yet to wear off.  An electric car is the ideal vehicle for driving around town.  There are no tailpipe emissions of carbon monoxide, particulate matter, or ozone to smog up our urban air.  In addition to being good for the environment, Lisa loves her Leaf because it is loaded with amenities and big enough to hold her husband and two sons, all over 6 feet tall.  The Leaf is quiet and smooth, but when she steps on the pedal it takes off like a rocket.  Curious people ask her how fast it will go, but she doesn’t know.  She’s had it up to 80 mph.  She wonders if maybe I’ve gone faster, but alas, I am a boring driver.


Lisa admits that when she first got the Leaf she suffered from a bit of charge anxiety; the fear of running out of electricity before getting home.  The first time she took the car to Austin, she stopped at the Nissan dealer in Round Rock and topped up her charge.  She needn’t have worried; she had plenty of juice for the return trip.  I have taken my Leaf to the Austin airport and back on one charge, but that is about the limit of range at highway speeds.  Driving around town at 30 to 40 mph it will go 100 miles, but since people rarely drive 100 miles around town, it’s not really an issue.  When you get home you just plug it in and charge up again.


The electricity to run the car costs about 2 ½ cents a mile.  (Gasoline costs 8 to 20 cents a mile, depending on whether you drive a gas sipper or a gas hog.)  No gasoline engine also means no oil changes.  About the only maintenance required is rotating the tires.  And cleaning the windshield.  Lisa and I both noticed that when you never go to a filling station, your windshield gets really, really dirty.


A curious person, Lisa once tried to deliberately run down her battery, just to see what would happen.  With about 8 miles of range left the dashboard started flashing warnings and the nice GPS lady offered directions to a charging station.  If a careless driver ignores the warnings and keeps driving, the Leaf will eventually enter what is called “turtle mode,” in which speed and acceleration are limited for one last mile, allowing a safe exit off the road.  Lisa tried to reach turtle mode in her neighborhood, driving round and round the block, but she got bored before the car ran out of charge.  Finally she just drove into her garage and plugged it in.  Sometimes she charges up at the Georgetown Recreation Center charging station, where the electricity is complimentary.


Lisa is sold on electric driving, but what about the general population?  Jerry Crider, the electric vehicle specialist at Round Rock Nissan, told me that hesitation about the new technology is being overcome by an attractive new lease deal from Nissan.  You can now lease a Leaf for 36 months with $2000 down and $249 a month.  That is a pretty good deal considering it costs about $200 a month just to keep an SUV fueled up.  A lease avoids the hefty purchase price of the Leaf, and after 3 years the customer can trade up to what will surely be new and improved electric technology.  Jerry has leased four Leafs in the last month alone.  So far nobody has come back to say they really prefer gasoline.


My next column will be about a delightful lady, Mary Griffith, who wanted to drive electrically but needed a car that could take her back and forth to Colorado.

Monday, December 3, 2012

What's Up with the Yellow Bags?
Published in the Sun December 1, 2012

“Bag the Bag” it’s called; a bright yellow stuffer bag designed to hold plastic bags, six pack rings, cellophane, and other film plastics for Georgetown’s new single stream recycling.  When the bag first showed up with my 96 gallon recycling bin I was incredulous.  Surely we didn’t have to buy special bags just to recycle other bags?  Couldn’t we just stuff all our bags into an old grocery bag?  The idea of a special bag just seemed so wrong to me that I made an appointment to speak with Verna Browning, a representative of Texas Disposal Systems, and Rachel Osgood and Gary Hertel from the city of Georgetown to learn the reason for this apparent travesty of sustainability.


It turns out there is method to their madness.  Plastic bags cannot be thrown loose into the recycling cart for two good reasons:  they fly everywhere on the slightest breeze creating litter, and they jam up the mechanism of the sorting machines.  So bags must be bundled together into a package big enough to stay put.  Unfortunately, a regular grocery bag filled up with other bags will tear open when it is compacted in the truck, and then you are right back where you started, with loose plastic bags.


The stuffer bags are tough enough to stand up to the collection process.  When properly tied shut, tiny perforations in the bottom of the bag allow air to escape so they don’t explode when compacted.  Upon arrival at the recycling center, workers can easily recognize the bright yellow bags and pull them off the conveyor before they go into the sorting machine and cause mechanical problems.  The yellow stuffer also identifies the bag as recycling.  A tied off grocery bag could just as easily be filled with diapers or doggie poo.


My original “Bag the Bag” has been hanging in my kitchen for over a month and it is still not even half full.  It now contains 22 bread and newspaper bags, the plastic wrapper from a bundle of paper towels, and some Saran wrap.  There are no grocery bags because I have reusable bags for the grocery store, and the few bags I do get line my small trash cans.  When it is finally full, new stuffers are available (for free) at the municipal utility office at the corner of Industrial Drive and Leander Road, at the Garden-Ville outlet near the soccer fields on Walden Drive, and at the Sun City Social Center Monitor’s desk.  Yes, they are free.  The original plan was to charge 25 cents a bag, but apparently citizens were on the verge of mutiny, and in a spirit of cooperation the city decided to absorb the cost.


If you remain skeptical about the yellow bags, you do have alternatives.  You can still take grocery bags, bread bags, and newspaper bags back to the grocery store.  I went to HEB incognito (which is easy for me) and asked two separate employees who were taking out trash if the grocery bags that get collected actually go to recycling.  Both assured me that they really do.  Unfortunately the grocery store will not take other kinds of plastic wrappers or cellophane, nor will they take those turtle-strangling six pack rings.  Another alternative is just to trash your plastic bags.  Recycling is, after all, voluntary.  Just remember that whatever goes into your trash bin ends up in the landfill.  It does not get diverted to recycling at the dump just because it is recyclable.


Several choices exist for yard waste as well.  If you continue to put yard waste in black plastic bags it will go into the landfill, no exceptions, where it uses up space and squanders a valuable resource.  If, however, you would prefer your yard waste to be composted and turned into mulch, bundle it into four foot lengths or place it in compostable bags and set it on the curb on your yard waste day.  I went to Home Depot to check out the bag situation.  Jim Glennan, a Home Depot employee and a recent transplant from the Chicago area, showed me a huge box in the Garden Center where you can get 5 compostable bags for $1.88.  He says this time of year they sell like hotcakes.  He also pointed out that in Illinois recycling was free but he had to put a sticker costing $2.80 on each and every yard bag or garbage bag that he discarded.  He liked that method because he could save money by not throwing anything away.  True, but it seems like an awfully pricey sticker to put on a bag of garbage.


For people who really don’t want to buy yard bags, Ms. Osgood suggested using a large generic trash can that looks different from the TDS bins and labeling it “YARD WASTE” in giant letters.  Your leaves will be composted au naturel.


For answers to almost any question that you could possibly have about Georgetown’s single stream recycling, go to



Sunday, November 18, 2012

Nothing for Christmas, or Maybe a Llama

Published in the Sun November 17, 2012

The busiest shopping day of the year is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.  Now if you are one of the people who really enjoys cruising the mall for Christmas bling, read no further.  There is nothing in this column for you.  But if you, like me, have a bunch of relatives who always buy themselves everything they want the minute they figure out they “need” it, and if battery-powered plastic widgets from China already fill every nook and cranny of your children’s rooms, shopping for more unnecessary stuff may seem like a strange way to celebrate a spiritual holiday.


Every year my family proposes cutting back or not giving Christmas gifts, but then we chicken out.  I’m sure it has happened to you.  You make a pact with somebody not to give gifts, and then on Christmas Day she shows up at your door with “just a little something” and you stand there like the Grinch.  Or maybe the adults in the family draw names for each other but everybody gets something for the children.  Then on Christmas morning the poor children open one gaily wrapped package after another for two hours and then collapse sobbing into a pile of wrapping paper when the frenzy is over.


Surely there are acceptable alternatives to buying gifts that end up in the back of a closet.  I have tried giving those Christmas cards announcing that a llama or water buffalo was donated to Heifer International.  If, en route to South America, the llama actually stopped by the honoree’s house, this would be a quite interesting gift, but without such a visit I suspect the recipient just wonders why I didn’t donate livestock in my own honor and give him a more immediately useful bottle of Scotch.


The Friday after Thanksgiving has another designation as well.  It is also known as International Buy Nothing Day, a campaign by Canadian-based Adbusters Magazine inviting people to go cold turkey from consumer culture for 24 hours by not buying anything.  No lattes, no movie tickets, no groceries, no gasoline, no shoes, no Christmas presents.  Buy Nothing Day has a website that explains the concept.  They suggest such alternative activities as a “Whirl-Mart,” in which you and your friends parade through certain big-box stores pushing empty shopping carts.  Or you could offer to cut up your friends’ credit cards.


As I perused the website I found myself wondering if there are Buy Nothing Day T-shirts.  I clicked on the shopping tab and received only a snarky admonition, “What?  Shopping already?”


After some reflection I came up with a plan that doesn’t involve embarrassing myself at a retail establishment.  My family members are forewarned and invited to retaliate appropriately.  I am going to celebrate International Buy Nothing Day by not shopping.  That won’t take long, so then I am going to sit down with a homemade cup of tea and list some gifts I can make.  Some of these will be cookies, some will be photographs, some will be artsy-craftsy.  Some may end up in the trash, but what difference does it make?  Expensive store bought items can end up there too.


I’m also going to buy gifts at the Christmas Stroll from local artists.  I get something unique and the money stays in our community.  Some of my family will get vintage items from antique stores.  My daughter and her husband don’t need another household gadget and would probably prefer a few evenings of babysitting.  Some lucky soul may still get a llama.


If your family has an interesting way to combat consumerism over the holidays, please send me an email.  I’ll have plenty of time to check email on Buy Nothing Day!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Straw Bale House Arises from Ashes of Bastrop Fire
published in the Sun November 4, 2012

On September 4, 2011, Charlie and Carol Jones were relaxing at their hilltop cabin near Bastrop.  Charlie had just talked to the sheriff about some small fires in the area, but had been reassured that the fires were under control.  It was a windy day, and a door blew open, so Carol got up to close it.  She came back and told Charlie that she smelled smoke.  They both went out to look around and noticed burning embers blowing across the deck.  A massive cloud of smoke was roiling up the side of the hill.  Carol threw the dogs in the truck and Charlie grabbed his guns, the computer, and a box of family photos.  Hightailing down the hill toward the main road, Carol remembered their neighbor Jess, who was out of town, so she called to tell him what was happening.  Jess is lucky to have a friend like Carol, because he had not left town after all.  He was holed up in his computer room, unaware that his home was about to be incinerated.  By the time Carol and Charlie reached the road, five minutes after they first smelled smoke, the entire hill was an inferno.  They stopped to take pictures, because they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

A few days later, when the Joneses were allowed to go back home, they still had hopes that the cabin might have been spared.  But when they reached what had been their home, Charlie said, “It was like the top of a volcano.”  The ground was still smoking.  Not a single tree was left unburned.  The cabin was nothing but ash; even the metal sleigh bed was twisted like a pretzel by the heat.  The only trace of their previous life was a wind chime tinkling in the breeze, and a large iron sugar pot in the yard that was home to a collection of goldfish.  Amazingly, the goldfish were still alive.

Thirteen months after the historic fire, the hill is covered with yellow flowers, and a few green shoots are emerging from blackened oak stumps.  Charred pine trunks stud the landscape.  Charlie and Carol are temporarily staying in a nearby RV park, but today they are the center of a small energetic crowd on top of the hill.  The Jones’s new straw bale home is being built by a very unorthodox construction company:  Clay, Sand, and Straw, owned by Austin architect Kindra Welch and her husband, John Curry.   The workers will be living on site until the house is finished.  A tent city occupies what was once the front yard.  Outdoor showers and composting toilets are hammered together out of scrap lumber.  Under a tarp, a gypsy kitchen provides three meals a day.  John is chief cook and bison potato stew is a specialty.

The new house has been framed and roofed, and volunteers (who paid for the privilege of learning straw bale construction) are helping the crew install the large bales that will insulate the walls.  Kindra, her hair tied back under a blue bandanna, is instructing the volunteers how to fit and secure the bales.  After all the bales are in place, the walls will be plastered inside and out, creating a beautiful, cool, and fire-resistant wall.  No drywall required, no siding.  John is supervising volunteers (when he is not cooking for them) and goes everywhere with a small boy peacefully strapped to Daddy’s back.

Kindra Welch installs a straw bale

Kindra got her degree in architecture from Rice University, and was comfortably installed in a fancy architecture company in New Jersey, earning the big bucks.  But Kindra was restless sitting at a computer for nine hours a day, and unhappy with the sort of buildings that her company was turning out.  The goal was to build fast and cheap without concern for quality or durability.  She wanted to build houses that people would actually want to live in.  Chucking the six-figure salary, Kindra loaded her belongings into a truck, and headed for the west coast to learn to build with cob, an environmentally friendly mixture of clay, sand, and straw.  After two years living out of the truck and learning natural building techniques, she came back to central Texas to share what she had learned.

Kindra’s dwellings are unique, stunningly beautiful, and energy efficient, so it is not surprising that she has developed a reputation.  For Carol and Charlie’s new home, she has salvaged timbers from the burnt forest.  Two branching trunks, still etched with char, arch over the entrance to the new front porch, a testament to new beginnings arising from devastation.  Carol and Charlie lost almost everything in the fire, but they weren’t hurt, and some surprising good things have come out of the disaster.  Although they miss the trees, they now have a stunning view in every direction.  More significant, they have a new community of supportive friends.  Charlie has only praise for the Clay, Sand, and Straw people.  Just thinking about how much they have helped his family brings a tear to his eye.  “You just won’t find a finer group of people.”

Charlie and Carol Jones

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Green Roofs
Published in the Sun October 21, 2012

Recently installed green roof at Indian Springs Elementary, San Antonio.  Plants provided by Joss Growers.

If you have ever worked on a Texas roof in the summertime, you know it is a hostile environment.  Even when the air temperature is a mere 104 degrees, on a sunny day the temperature on the surface of a roof can reach 170 degrees, easily hot enough to burn your tender posterior were you foolish enough to sit down.  Urban areas, with a lot of hot roofs and pavement, are “heat islands.”  The ambient temperature in the city can be 10 degrees hotter than the surrounding countryside.


Besides being hot, commercial roofs are unattractive, usually consisting of some black goop with gravel interspersed with overworked air conditioners.


A “green roof” uses vegetation to solve the problem of hot, ugly roofs.  Plants are by nature designed to absorb energy from the sun for photosynthesis, so with enough plants on the roof, the heat gain to the roof deck can be reduced by as much as 90%.  The plants accomplish this feat not only by shading the roof, but also by the cooling effect of evaporation.  A cooler roof deck transfers much less heat to the building below, decreasing energy costs for air conditioning.


But how does one successfully create a green roof?  If you just put some potted posies on a Texas roof they will be cooked by midafternoon.  David Scott, a horticulturist and owner of Joss Growers near Jonah, has been studying the green roof business for about 7 years.  His first efforts resulted not in the attractive roof-top meadow he desired, but in a few spindly survivors and a lot of heavy dirt in an elevated location.  Plants just didn’t grow quickly on a windy, superheated roof.  It could take three years to grow enough coverage for a cooling effect on the building, and most clients were not that patient.

David Scott (right) and Steve Roberson at Joss Growers
with modules containing ice plant and purple heart

Four years ago David attended a trade show in Vancouver, and discovered Live Roof, a company with a new system.  Live Roof uses special trays about the size of a cookie sheet, filled with a lightweight engineered soil made primarily of expanded shale and rice hulls.  An assortment of appropriate plants is grown in the modules under greenhouse conditions until the tray is completely covered with healthy plants.  The modules are then transferred to the roof and lined up side by side, creating one continuous shallow planter.  Because the plants are big enough to shade their own roots, the substrate stays cool, and the plants thrive.  The special soil does not decompose, and does not wash out of the modules when it rains.  In fact, the soil retains water and reduces storm runoff from the building.  Stormwater management is a serious problem for cities where naturally green areas have been replaced by impervious cover.  This is one reason green roofs are so popular in Vancouver, where it rains a lot.


David points out that choosing the right plants is crucial.  In Germany, 14% of all flat roofs are green roofs, but the climate is far different there.  Sedums are the most successful plants for green roofs in more temperate climates, because they, like many succulents, use a special type of carbon dioxide metabolism called Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM).  That means they keep their leaf pores closed during the day to conserve water, and then open them during the cool night to take in carbon dioxide. The CO2 is stored as an acid until it can be used for photosynthesis the next day.  It seems as if the water-conserving characteristics of sedums would make them successful in Texas.  Unfortunately sedums are highly susceptible to Southern Blight Fungus, which thrives in our high summer humidity, and can rapidly convert a lovely sedum roof into a wasteland.


David has a whole list of plants that have proven to do better than sedums in our area, including some beautiful native grasses, lantana, purple heart, Ice plant, blackfoot daisies, and many others.  Most amazing to me was horseherb, which you would instantly recognize as the “weed” with heart-shaped green leaves and tiny yellow flowers that is growing profusely now in my yard wherever the grass has died, which is mostly everywhere.  It turns out that horseherb makes a stunning groundcover, and is also drought tolerant, evergreen, and can prosper on a roof.


Joss Grower’s biggest green roof so far is the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building in San Antonio, with more than 13,000 square feet of greenery installed this year to replace a leaky, asbestos-contaminated, gravelly roof.  The plants are now growing so vigorously that some of the sprinkler heads couldn’t pop up properly and had to be readjusted.  In Texas, green roofs do have to be irrigated, but they only require about 50 minutes of irrigation every four to five days.  Some buildings use the condensate from the air conditioner to water the green roof.


So why should a commercial builder bother with a green roof?  Why not just buy some extra insulation and forget about the roof?  Protected from excessive temperatures and ultraviolet radiation, a vegetated roof can last twice as long as an exposed roof.  There are psychological benefits also, especially if the roof can be seen and accessed from other parts of the building.  Tenants will pay more to live or work in a beautiful building than they will for an ugly one.  Hospital patients have been reported to heal faster if their room has a view of nature.  Some say workers are more productive and relaxed when they can look out on a lovely green meadow.  Perhaps our subconscious brain recognizes that plants are the source of our oxygen and food.  For whatever reason, people just feel better around plants.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Renewable Energy Roundup in Fredericksburg
Published in the Sun October 7, 2012

Johnny Delirious took off his hat, pointed to his very bald head, and said, “We need to think round.”  Mr. Delirious was only one of the many speakers at the 12th annual Renewable Energy Roundup and Green Living Fair in Fredericksburg last weekend who advocate for a radical shift in how we think about building homes.


Building square houses out of sticks is a technique of the past, claims Mr. Delirious.  Johnny’s company, Monolithic Constructors Inc., builds domes for homes, churches, gymnasiums.  The domes are made by spraying polyurethane foam and concrete in the inside of a giant inflatable form.  The resulting structure is so tough it can withstand a direct hit by an F-5 tornado, and Johnny had pictures to prove it.  He also claimed that the domes are fireproof, bulletproof (good for survivalists), and that one unfortunate dome had been pulled intact out of a crevasse after an earthquake.  Johnny goes by the name Delirious because twenty years ago he turned down the opportunity for a liver transplant for hepatitis C but survived anyway.  I found his arguments for domed structures more persuasive than his medical advice, but there was no denying his enthusiasm for both topics.


Other speakers at the fair were less colorful but no less passionate about new ways to tackle 21st century problems.  Peter Pfeiffer, renowned Austin architect and green building scientist, used the USDA’s food pyramid to demonstrate the relative importance of various energy efficiency techniques.  Just like whole grains and vegetables should make up the bulk of our diets, sensible measures such as shading windows, radiant barriers on roofs, and living in appropriately sized homes provide far more bang for the buck than sexy additions like solar panels.  As attractive as solar panels may be, they are like dessert, and should only be considered after the rest of the home’s energy efficiency diet is healthy.


Janet Meek, retired US diplomat to Korea and Djibouti and former midwife, was in Fredericksburg to testify to the benefits of living in a cob home.  Cob is a mixture of mud and straw.  Because air conditioning is by far the largest consumer of electricity in a Texas home, Janet had made the principled decision to build her dream home in Hunt without air conditioning.  Her cob walls are hand formed and two feet thick.  But lest you get the wrong idea, this home is not a hut such as might be seen in National Geographic, but rather should grace the pages of Southern Living.  During the hot part of summer Janet lets the house ventilate at night, and then she closes up to keep the cool in during the day.  Janet admits that when the outside temperature rises above 100 degrees, the practical solution is to relax on the porch with a cold drink.  During the summer of 2011 the interior of the house reached the high 80s, but with ceiling fans it felt much cooler, and her electric bills are next to nothing.  Most of the time she is well acclimated and comfortable, as were our ancestors for thousands of years.  Her spare bedroom has a small air conditioner for guests who have not yet adjusted to the low carbon lifestyle.


Kindra Welch, the architect who designed and built Janet’s house, said the majority of homes built in the US these days are in a “Race to the Bottom Line.”  She means that today’s houses are often built fast and cheap, and designed for profit in the short term.  In her opinion we should be looking at things in the context of 1000 years.  Builders should consider the life cycle of the materials used and the cumulative effect on the environment.  There are three possible qualities for any building: Good, Fast, and Inexpensive.  You can have any two, but not all three.


The Roundup was not just about green building.  Alternative energy was also a topic of interest.  Gary Krysztopik, an electrical engineer, has been building electric cars in San Antonio for six years.  Gary says that a car can be run on the same amount of electricity that would be required just to refine the equivalent gasoline, eliminating the energy costs of exploring, pumping, spilling, and transporting the oil.  According to Gary, “We are better off buying foreign cars that run on US electrons than buying US cars that run on foreign oil.”


The Roundup featured innovators in solar energy, biodiesel, water conservation and rainwater harvesting, wind energy, and organic farming.  Attendees ranged from engineers to hippies to hippy engineers with a few survivalists in the mix.  It was a great opportunity to think outside the box, or as Johnny Delirious would say, “Think round.”

Saturday, September 22, 2012

West Nile Virus and how to avoid it:  published in the Sun Sept. 22, 2012

Evil, blood-sucking pests, mosquitoes are responsible for more human misery, disease, and death than any other insect.  Yellow fever, malaria, dengue, encephalitis, and now West Nile virus are all transmitted by mosquitoes.  As someone who has suffered a bout of malaria, I would shed no tears if mosquitoes were an endangered species, but alas, they are thriving.  (To be fair, mosquitoes are an important source of food for bats and birds, but we are not discussing that virtue today.)


Texas is currently the epicenter of a small epidemic of West Nile disease; more than 1200 confirmed cases and 50 deaths in Texas this year.  Forty percent of all the cases in the US have been in Texas.


Mindy Powell, a registered nurse, told me about her 80 year old relative in the Dallas area who recently died of the most severe form of West Nile, called neuroinvasive because it attacks the brain.  One day this active outdoor enthusiast and fisherman thought he might be getting a cold, but rapidly worsened.  He called his daughter to come over.  By the time she arrived, her father was unable to walk.  At the emergency room he became confused and lost consciousness.  After three weeks in the ICU on a ventilator, he passed away.


Dr. Virginia Headley, epidemiologist with the Williamson County and Cities Health District (WCCHD), stated that six people in Williamson County have had the neuroinvasive form of West Nile this year.  Of those six, one died and two formerly independent elderly adults are in nursing homes recovering.  More commonly, people infected with West Nile virus get a fever and other symptoms, but the brain is not affected, and they eventually recover.


For every person who is diagnosed with West Nile fever, at least 4 others are infected but never know it because they have no symptoms.  We know this because donated blood from healthy people is checked for antibodies to the virus.  Between 2003 and 2008, the CDC analyzed all the donated blood in the US and discovered that about 1% of the population had already been infected.  A study in Houston found that among homeless men who had lived outside for a year, more than 16% had developed antibodies to West Nile.  Once you have had the virus and recovered, you are probably immune, but it might be too soon to know if the immunity lasts for life.


So what can we do to control this situation?  Pesticides can be sprayed in an emergency, but pesticides only knock down the adult mosquito population temporarily and are not practical in rural areas.  Pesticides don’t get at the root cause which is too many nice breeding places for mosquitoes.  As Dr. Chip Riggins, executive director at the WCCHD, explained, “Aerial spraying is an adjunct to other things.  You can spray all day long and if you don’t have the public helping, it won’t work for long.”


Last week’s rain provided lots and lots of stagnant water to breed mosquitoes.  Some kinds of mosquitoes can go from an egg to a biting adult within 5 days, especially in warm weather, so we will start to see mosquitoes now from the recent rains.


I decided to take a trip around my house to see if I could find any breeding areas, supposing of course that I would not, because who wants to think that her own home is a public health hazard.  Immediately upon stepping out, I saw that the birdbath was teeming with wiggly mosquito larvae.  Disgusted, I dumped it out.  Next I found a bucket with water in it and a saucer under a plant.


Deborah Marlow, deputy director of environmental health services, has been interested in ecological methods to control pests since her college days.  Deborah studied mosquitofish, a minnow also known as Gambusia affinis, as predators of mosquito larvae.  A Gambusia minnow can eat its body weight in larvae every day.  A dozen mosquitofish can keep an abandoned swimming pool mosquito free for months.  My friends Bob and Janine Hall also use mosquitofish in their aquaponics gardens and horse troughs.  Janine said she bought the minnows at McIntire’s nursery several years ago and doesn’t even have to feed them.  They not only live off the mosquito larvae but they reproduce prolifically.  Whenever the Halls build a new aquaponics bed, Janine just dips some more mosquitofish out of the horse trough.  The mosquitofish are not sensitive about water quality either.  The only time the minnows ever died was the year it stayed below freezing for three days straight and the horse trough froze into a solid block of ice.


Mosquito dunks are another way to control larvae in standing water that cannot be drained.  The dunks contain spores of Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, called Bt for short.  When the spores are eaten by a mosquito larva, a toxin paralyzes the larva’s intestine, causing it to die of starvation or septicemia.  Luckily, birds, fish, and animals are completely resistant to the toxin in Bt.  In 1959, an intrepid group of volunteers ingested a gram of Bt daily.  Some of the volunteers inhaled an additional dose as well.  After five days of this regimen all the volunteers were completely unaffected.  I don’t think you would be allowed to do an experiment like that these days.

Mosquitofish in a pond at McIntire's Garden Center

Clint Hawes at The Feed Store demonstrating mosquito dunks

Bill Stump checking a gutter for standing water


Tips for Avoiding West Nile Infections (from DSHS and CDC websites)


1.  Use insect repellent containing DEET, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus.


2.  Dress in long sleeves and long pants when you are outside.


3.  Stay indoors at dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes are most active.


4.  Drain standing water where mosquitoes breed.  Common breeding sites include old tires, flower pots, and clogged rain gutters.  Toys, buckets, and tarps that aren’t pulled taut can also collect water. 


5.  Make sure mosquitoes cannot enter rain barrels.  Use mosquito dunks or Gambusia minnows in water features and ponds.


6.  Install or repair screens on open windows.


7.  Remove brush and debris where adult mosquitoes hide.


Saturday, September 8, 2012

OUR Ecovillage

Published in the Sun September 8, 2012

Forced to survive on the produce from my own vegetable garden, I would certainly starve to death within one season.  I’ve never plucked a chicken, or butchered a hog, or even milked a cow with any success.  So why is the idea of homesteading so appealing to me, and to so many of my grocery store dependent peers?  Why do city dwellers yearn for a piece of rural property with poultry and fruit trees and a family harmoniously doing rustic chores?


My completely unsubstantiated theory is that humans have an evolutionary need to band together in small groups and work for food.  If you live in the city, food is everywhere; more food than you could possibly eat.  The thrill of the chase is gone.  Where is the satisfaction in buying a hamburger at a drive-up window?  By relying on agribusiness for nourishment, oil companies for energy, and Hollywood for entertainment, we have accepted the role of hungry baby birds, helplessly waiting with open mouths to devour what others regurgitate.


True self-sufficiency is not realistic in modern society (thank goodness) but we still have an urge to work together with friends and family; to plant, to build, to sweat, and to high five each other at the end of the day and say, “We did that ourselves.”


Last week I visited an ecovillage in British Columbia.  As described on the website, an ecovillage is a settlement in which “human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.”  This particular ecovillage, created in 1999, is called OUR (One United Resource) Ecovillage, and seems to have been started as a commune devoted to sustainable lifestyles.  At first 10 to 20 semi-permanent members were growing their own food and building small artistic houses out of cob, a mixture of clay, straw, and sand.  They planned to be a demonstration center where others could learn techniques of living close to the land, but nobody anticipated how wildly popular the concept would be.  The number of visitors and temporary residents exploded, reaching 10,000 a year.  People were coming from all over the world to see what was going on, revealing a tremendous hunger for getting back to nature.



Arriving at the gate of the 25 acre farm on Vancouver Island, my family and I were announced by a noisy flock of turkeys.  Patrick Jackson came out to greet us.  With a lovely South African accent and wavy blonde hair tied into a ponytail, Patrick looks like the aerial performer he used to be.  Patrick and his family have lived at the ecovillage since 2008, so he is an old-timer.  His job is to keep the legion of transient and unskilled volunteers working productively on the many building and agricultural projects that are in various stages of completion.


Patrick leads us to the outdoor dining area where a vegetarian lunch is just being served.  We have a bowl of onion soup with homemade croutons and vegetable slaw.  Patrick calls the kitchen a “zero mile eatery” because generally the meals consist of food grown on site.  They rarely serve meat, but they recently killed some chickens and are planning to butcher a pig in the fall.  A resident cow provides milk.


Brandy Gallagher, the executive director of OUR Ecovillage, sits down to visit while we eat lunch.  A social worker by training, she was raised in a commune in the wilderness.  Brandy describes herself as a “long, long term visionary.”  She explains that most communities like this one maintain a very low profile, staying as far away as possible from regulators and code enforcers.  Brandy has taken a different tack and tries to bring code enforcers around to her point of view; to compromise on acceptable ways to water the orchard with gray water and compost the latrine output.  I sense that sometimes the code people balk.  Brandy admits that she and the bank have different views of mortgage payments and community ownership, so the commune part of OUR Ecovillage is struggling a bit.  The education mission, in contrast, is proceeding full throttle.


Brandy rushes off and leaves me with a group of women who have just finished a two week permaculture design course.  They have been staying in tents and using a latrine.  The latrine is called the “Credit Union” because it takes deposits.  Withdrawals are also required; users have to take turns dumping the latrine bucket into the humanure composter.  One of the students, Rebecca, an ecology professor at Metropolitan State University in Denver, volunteers to give a tour.  We see the doomed pig enjoying a sunny day in a mud puddle.  Chickens and goats comingle around a coop near a greenhouse filled with produce.  Rebecca shows us a peach tree planted on the south side of a cob wall where it can soak up solar heat as the days get cooler.  She also shows us several of the latrines, which have apparently made quite an impression on her.


Most of the buildings, while quite artistic, are not completely finished.  I ask Rebecca how she, as a university scientist, interprets the non-linear thinking prevalent in the ecovillage.  She smiles and reminds me that solving humanity’s current problems will require all kinds of different thinking.
Rebecca and the peach tree soaking up solar warmth

My son Jeffrey in front of the "Credit Union"

A pig who doesn't know what's in store for her

A volunteer digging potatoes

Thursday, August 30, 2012


Published in the Williamson County Sun 8-26-12

Mercury from a broken thermometer was so much fun to play with.  I would put it on a saucer and break it into tiny beads with a toothpick, and then watch the beads pop back together into a big, shimmery ball.  Genie Vogler told me she would squish a dime into the mercury to make the dime real shiny.  What our mothers didn’t know when they gave us mercury as a toy was that those bits of quicksilver were vaporizing into toxic gases, inhaled into our curious little brains.  We all survived those multiple small exposures, and even went to college, but sometimes when I watch CSPAN I wonder if there could have been a lingering effect on our generation.


Remember Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter?  In 1865, when Lewis Carroll wrote the novel, mercuric nitrate was used to make felt hats.  Hatters were chronically exposed to mercury vapors and suffered tremors, hallucinations, and erratic behavior.  Carroll grew up near the center of England’s hat industry, so he would have been acquainted with the condition.  The center of America’s hat making industry was Danbury, Connecticut, where factories dumped waste mercury into the Still River.  Although the use of mercury for making felt was banned in 1941, the river sediment is contaminated with mercury to this day.


Mercury has no essential role in animal physiology, but it has become a ubiquitous pollutant.  Every year, fifty tons of mercury is released into American air as the result of burning coal for electricity.  You guessed it:  Texas is Numero Uno, with more than twice the emissions of the distant number 2, Ohio.  The problem with all that mercury in the air is that it settles into our lakes and oceans where bacteria convert it into methylmercury, a neurotoxin that accumulates in the muscle tissue of fish.  The higher the fish is on the food chain, the more mercury it accumulates, so the big carnivorous fish like tuna and shark have the most mercury.  Eating large doses of methylmercury can cause permanent brain damage, especially in a fetus or young child.  This fact creates a dilemma for me.  In my freezer is a big filet of king mackerel, caught recently by my son-in-law at Port Aransas.  It is super-delicious, which I know because I ate the other half of that fish before realizing that king mackerel is on the Food and Drug Administration’s “Do Not Eat” list for pregnant women and young children.  I’m not pregnant, of course, but knowing about the mercury in that fish sucks the joy right out of eating it.


Mercury can also bypass the air and enter directly into our water supply.  Dentists’ offices that place or remove amalgam fillings (the silver ones which are 43% mercury) flush 3.7 tons of mercury a year into municipal wastewater systems, according to an estimate by the EPA.  Ninety percent of that mercury will settle out with the biosolids and can re-enter the environment if the biosolids are incinerated or applied to land as fertilizer.  The other ten percent remains in the treated water and returns to our lakes and streams.  The quantity in the water is too little to hurt you if you drink it, but it can be converted to methylmercury and concentrated in fish.  Mercury never goes away.  It just moves around.


Although in most states it is still perfectly legal for dentists to flush waste amalgam down the drain, the American Dental Association recommends that it be carefully captured and recycled.  Dr. David Hennington was kind enough to show me his amalgam separator, a special filter that removes amalgam fragments from his surgical wastewater.  Dr. Hennington prefers to fill cavities with the new tooth-colored composite resins and doesn’t use amalgam for filling teeth anymore, but often he has to remove an old silver filling that has failed.


Interestingly, another way that dental amalgams contribute to mercury pollution is by cremations.  When a body with amalgam fillings is cremated, the high temperatures vaporize the mercury.  The EPA estimates that every year several tons of mercury go up in smoke from cremated teeth.


There is a lot of controversy about possible health effects of having amalgam fillings in your mouth.  It is well known that there are mercury emissions even from cured amalgam fillings, but the amount is so small that it is difficult to prove any detriment to health.  The argument will rage on, but neither Dr. Hennington nor the American Dental Association recommends removing amalgam fillings that are functioning well.  If a dentist advises you to remove all your old amalgam fillings to avoid mercury toxicity, put your hand over your wallet and get a second opinion.  Dr. Hennington belongs to the Eco-Dentistry Association, and not even they recommend removing intact amalgam fillings.  They do, however, recommend that you save water by turning off the tap while you brush your teeth.

Dr. David Hennington and his amalgam separator

Sunday, August 12, 2012

"Smart" Meters - published in the Sun August 11, 2011

Aldo Salinas, a supervisor with Texas Meter and Device,
 is in charge of installing smart meters in Georgetown

A controversy about “smart” electric meters is raging through the internet.  Some say the meters are exposing us to dangerous radiation; others believe the meters are prying into our private affairs.  The city of Georgetown is currently in the process of installing new meters that measure the amount of electricity used by a home in 15 minute intervals.  The data is stored, and then several times a day the information is sent wirelessly to the utility company, as if the meter were sending a text message.  This transmission is the crux of the concern.

The truth is that Georgetown residents have already been using meters with wireless technology since 1998.  The old meters transmitted only once a day, but the wholesale market for electricity operates on a 15 minute standard, so the old meters were obsolete, and they were wearing out anyway.

Currently customers pay the same price for electricity no matter what time of day it is consumed, but at some future date the new meters could be used for time-of-use pricing, offering customers the option to pay lower rates for electricity during off-peak hours.  For example, rather than running the dishwasher at 6:30 pm when demand is high, it could be run at 11 pm for discounted rates.  This shift would not only save customers money, but would allow the city to avoid buying expensive electricity during periods of high demand.

The smart meters are clearly useful from an energy standpoint.  What about possible health effects?

Human beings have always lived in a soup of electromagnetic energy from the sun, coming at us in a broad spectrum of wavelengths and frequencies.  We are most familiar with the center of the spectrum, visible light, because that is the frequency our eyes evolved to receive.  Higher frequency energy, like X-ray, carries more energy than visible light.  Because X-rays have a very short wavelength, they can penetrate all the way through your body to make a picture, but you can’t feel anything at all because you have no sensory receptors for X-rays.  X-rays are called “ionizing” radiation because their extremely high energy enables them to knock electrons off molecules in DNA, which can lead to mutations and even cancer.

In contrast, microwaves and radio waves are less energetic than visible light.  These waves are called “non-ionizing” radiation because they are too weak to knock electrons off DNA molecules.  They can however cause vibration of molecules in biologic tissue.  A microwave oven uses a 2450 megahertz signal to vibrate water molecules in food, heating it up.  This is called thermal effect.  Radio waves are even lower frequency than microwaves, but thermal effect has caused serious burns in workers or military personnel who stood directly in front of a powerful radar antenna for a prolonged time.  Sailors used to believe that the thermal effect from radar could make them infertile for 24 hours.  Unfortunately for women on shore, this method of contraception did not prove to be reliable.

Just as sound waves can be loud or soft, radio signals can be generated with differing power densities.  The inside of a microwave oven is going to have a very strong power density, because it is designed to create a thermal effect, which only occurs at power densities greater than 100 milliwatts/centimeter2.  The power density of a cell phone is less than 1 milliwatt/centimeter2, so the energy dissipates too quickly to heat tissue.  Even so, a cell phone can be pressed to the ear for hours at a time, so the Federal Communications Commission regulates the output of all cell phones and other devices that use wireless transmission.

Power density decreases rapidly with distance.  A smart meter on the outside wall of the house is a thousand times less exposure to a resident inside than talking on a cell phone would be.  Even baby monitors, cordless phone bases, and wireless routers expose you to more radio waves than smart meters.  Some people claim that they experience headaches or nausea when exposed to these devices, but controlled experiments have demonstrated that people experience the same symptoms if they are just told that they are being exposed but really aren’t.  Humans cannot perceive radio waves, just as they cannot perceive X-rays.  We do not have “eyes” for those frequencies.  Put the issue in perspective:  if you are comfortable with a cell phone, don’t worry about the much smaller risk from a smart meter.

The other main objection to smart meters is that they are an invasion of privacy, that the city might check how often you use your margarita machine.  Electricity is electricity; a meter cannot distinguish your toaster from your hair dryer and it can’t figure out what kind of videos you are watching.  A “smart” meter is just not that smart.  Once again, your phone is the guilty party.  Your service provider knows who you call, what you Google, and where you are at any moment of the day.